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Voices of civilian internment: WWII Singapore

The most complete record from a Far East civilian internment camp to survive from WWII" Ronald William Bridge MBE AFC FRAeS FRI
Child internee at Weihsen Camp, China, WWII
Former Chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees - Far East Region (ABCIFER)


The Royal Commonwealth Society Collection at Cambridge University Library has digitised the archives of two Second World War civilian internment camps established by the Japanese at Singapore, generously funded by a Research Resources Award from the Wellcome Trust.  The records are of immense interest to the families of internees and a wide range of researchers, since few survivors ever spoke of their traumatic ordeal.  The survival of this unique archive is largely due to the vision of Hugh Bryson, a career member of the Malayan Civil Service, who himself was interned.  While Secretary of the British Association of Malaysia and Singapore from 1952 to 1967, he collected original documents, diaries and correspondence of historical interest from members, and encouraged them to write their memoirs.  When the association disbanded in 1977, its archive was deposited with the Royal Commonwealth Society, and it came to Cambridge in 1993 when the University acquired its library.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, British colonial civil servants remained at their posts and civilians running businesses overseas stayed to support the war effort.  In this respect Malaya’s rubber and tin industries were particularly important.  There were plans to evacuate women and children from Malaya, but the speed of the Japanese invasion in December 1941 caught many by surprise. There was an exodus of refugees to Singapore as the Japanese advance continued.  Memoirs in the collection record the final battle for Singapore: aerial bombardment, shelling, blazing petrol stores in the harbour and the acrid smoke of burning fuel.

On 17 February 1942, three days after the surrender, all remaining British civilians of European descent were ordered to report for internment.  On 6 and 8 March they were marched to Changi Jail, a grim concrete building in the eastern part of the city.  Although built to house 600 inmates, roughly 2,500 civilians were confined there.   Internees were separated by gender.  Boys stayed with their mothers until they were 12, when they were transferred to the men’s camp.  In May 1944, internees were moved to the former military command centre at Sime Road. About 1,100 more people were interned at this time.    

The archive

The archive is composed of two types of material from the men’s camp: official records of the camp administration and the poignant personal memoirs of individuals.  Together they help vividly to reconstruct the lives of civilian internees, shedding light upon relations with the Japanese authorities, accommodation, camp discipline, work parties, diet, health, hygiene, recreation and repatriation at the end of the war.  Among the most significant camp records are two nominal rolls which document each internee’s personal data.  Although Britons were the great majority, the final roll call at Sime Road from August 1945 includes the citizens of more than twenty countries, emphasizing the international significance of the collection.  A replica of the Memorial Book of the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region, which lists the names of all known British and Commonwealth civilians interned by the Japanese, has also been digitized.

At various times, the camps were under the control of the Japanese Army High Command, the Military Administration Department or the Military Police, but their actual day to day running was delegated to the internees themselves.  Internees elected male and female representatives to liaise with the Japanese, and commandants of the camps’ constituent areas.  The collection holds archives compiled by one of the camp commandants, John Weekley, who had been a mining engineer before the war.  Most civilians entered Changi with only what they could carry, suitcases or kit bags containing clothing, toiletries and personal items.  Everything else, including beds and bedding, furniture, cooking and eating utensils, and tools or materials for essential services, the cultivation of the gardens and the repair of buildings, had to be procured by the internees themselves.  There was never enough of anything, and shortages worsened as the war progressed.  The camps were required to provide fatigue labour for the Japanese, and workers were also employed gardening, woodcutting and in general maintenance.  

A universal memory noted by internees was constant, nagging hunger.  Provisioning from the Japanese was limited, and official rations were cut towards the end of the war.  Paramount was the constant struggle for internees to supplement this with what they could grow in camp gardens or acquire from external sources.  Purchases were funded by loans raised by internees.  The archive preserves records of the camp quartermaster, Norman Jarrett, a civil servant who had been Food Controller, Malaya.  Statistics of the monthly weighing of internees recorded a steady decline in weight and nutritional deficiencies became acute.  Weekley’ s files describe the organization of camp medical services and the foundation of a hospital, while reports from medical staff document the internees’ failing health. Internees were subject to an often arbitrary and brutal disciplinary regime, inflicting considerable mental stress.  The most notorious incident was the ‘Double Tenth’ of 10 October 1943. On that date and after, 57 Singapore civilians or civilian internees in Changi were arrested by the Japanese military police, in the mistaken belief that they had colluded in an attack upon ships in the harbour. The archive includes the report of a commission which recorded evidence of the starvation and torture of the innocent victims, 21 of whom died.

One of the great highlights of the collection are the newspapers circulated within the men’s camp, which are an invaluable source for news and events, and also published fiction, poetry and humour.  They recorded the activities of sporting, theatrical and musical societies, and educational initiatives, which played such a vital role in maintaining camp morale.  W.F.N. Churchill, one of the great characters of the Malayan Civil Service, known for an irrepressible sense of humour, wrote one of the most compelling personal accounts, which eloquently summarised the internees’ achievement in surviving their three and a half year ordeal:

"After organisation we did everything for ourselves, and with the poor materials and resources at our command, we made a good show of it. We produced cooks, electricians, water engineers, plumbers, tailors, roof repairers, carpenters, laundry workers, health workers, doctors, chemists and opticians. Fortunately we had a cross section of the whole community. The Japanese would never have admitted it, but I think we did, in considerable measure, earn their respect."

Cambridge Assessment material

In October 1945 the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate received an application via the Colonial Office for the recognition of school certificate level examinations which had been conducted for boys in the internment camp at Sime Road. These exams had been orchestrated by Harold Cheeseman, internee and self-appointed local secretary who subsequently supplied the Local Exams Syndicate with examination regulations and question papers, candidate lists and scripts. Except for the scripts, this extraordinary archive remains intact as part of Cambridge Assessment Group Archives as a testament to the co-ordination and tenacity of the students and teachers, and not least Cheeseman, whose efforts were rewarded with examiner scrutiny and the awarding of School Certificates.

Salvation Army material

The internees at Changi included fourteen Salvation Army officers from Europe who were on missionary appointments in Singapore and Malaya [Malaysia] at the time of the Japanese invasion. The archives at the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre in London contain records of these officers which have been digitised and made available here. The records document the full careers of these officers as well as their experiences in internment. The Heritage Centre has also supplied digital images of items that were created by lay Salvationists who established their own Salvation Army corps while interned in Changi. These include flags, a hand-carved medal, a manuscript song book and a magazine designed 'for Salvationists of Changi to record their testimonies, thoughts and experiences during this period of imprisonment'.


With many thanks to Ronald William Bridge MBE AFC FRAeS FRIN, Ruth Macdonald (Archivist, Salvation Army International Heritage Centre) and
Gillian Cooke (Group Archivist, Cambridge Assessment)
We are also grateful to the following:
For more information on the conservation of the archive and blog posts about the collection, please refer to our departmental project web-page